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Better Protection Coming for Seabird in Santa Cruz Mountains

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Marbled murrelet at sea | Photo: USDA/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A diminutive seabird that gained national prominence during the "Timber Wars" of the 1990s will get a bit more stringent protection in Santa Cruz County. It's a result of a settlement between an environmental group and the California State Parks -- and residents will get cleaner state parks in the process.

The southernmost population of the marbled murrelet, a 10-inch auk relative, lays its eggs in the thick moss atop branches of ancient redwood trees and other old growth, just barely hangs on in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Only about five percent of the bird's nesting habitat remains: most of it has been logged, making the Threatened species a bit of a cause célèbre during the controversy over logging of the Pacific Northwest's ancient forests during the 1990s.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains' redwood parks, one of the biggest threats to the murrelet comes from other birds raiding its nests. The chief culprits are ravens and Steller's jays, both avid nest predators. Garbage left by campers in state parks attracts the ravens and jays, which increases pressure on the murrelets. That's why a legal settlement announced Tuesday in which State Parks agrees to keep garbage away from scavengers is being lauded by wildlife defenders.

At issue was a management plan the California Department of Parks and Recreation that would create more visitor areas throughout the 18,000-acre Big Basin Redwoods State Park near the town of Boulder Creek, where most of the region's 450 or so murrelets live. But while dispersing visitors throughout the park would serve to lessen visitor impact on the sites where visitors had previously been concentrated, it also ran the risk of dispersing garbage throughout the park. That would have boosted raven and jay numbers, further threatening the murrelet.

The murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus spends its time when not nesting either on the open ocean or in protected bays, where it feeds on herring and other small fish brought to the near-surface in upwellings. Females lay a single egg on moss or lichen atop broad tree branches. Hatching occurs in about a month, and the chick is fed for 40 days or so until it leaves the nest and heads out to sea unaccompanied. Marbled murrelets are not, in other words, the most prolific breeders, and it doesn't take much nest predation to send a local population into a steep decline.

In June 2013, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed suit against the State Parks Department, charging that the Big Basin General Plan violated both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the California Endangered Species Act because it didn't sufficiently address the Plan's potential harm to the murrelet.

In Tuesday's settlement with CBD, State Parks has agreed to enact measures at Big Basin and the nearby Butano and Portola state parks to control nest predator numbers and educate members of the public about the importance of keeping the parks clean. Among other measures, State Parks will install animal-proof garbage containers and construct indoor dishwashing facilities for campers, thus cutting down on the amount of food waste available to scavenging birds.

The agency also agrees to monitor murrelet numbers annually and assess the bird's status every three years to see if further measures are needed to protect the species.

"This settlement is great news for murrelets in the Santa Cruz Mountains," said CBD biologist Shaye Wolf. "These remarkable seabirds are dangerously close to extinction, and many park visitors would be shocked to learn that their trash adds to this decline. The new protections will help make sure murrelets have a safe place to nest in our state parks again."

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